Minh Smith, the longtime owner of the Ben Moore’s building and former operator of the business on Fourth Avenue, has compiled years of memories about the restaurant and bar that closed last month.
Now, she has to determine what the future will be for a business that has long been viewed as an icon in downtown Olympia, although it had fallen on slower times in recent years.
Smith, 63, who was joined by her attorney, Michael G. Gusa, on Wednesday, shared her thoughts about the next steps for Ben Moore’s as well as her memories about a business she has been associated with since 1973.
First on her list of things to do is to clean up and renovate the interior, some of which was taking place Wednesday. Smith said she doesn’t want to make structural changes to the building, but still wants to give the restaurant’s somewhat disconnected design a more open feel by adding windows to interior walls in some places and removing windows in other places.
“My main goal is to make it more desirable,” she said.
Some work is complete. Smith replaced the roof, at a cost of $54,000, after it was damaged in the January 2012 snowstorm, she said.
Once renovations are complete, Smith has a decision to make.
She’s received inquiries from people who want to buy the business, and she’s also considered running it as a restaurant with her daughter, Bonnie, although she doesn’t know whether she will keep the Ben Moore’s name, she said.
“Part of me wants to let it go; part of me wants to keep it,” Smith said about the business.
Smith became involved with Ben Moore’s in the late 1960s after she met and married Roy Smith of Olympia while she was still in Vietnam.
Minh Smith was born and raised in Haiphong, Vietnam, and later worked in the mess hall and snack shop at a U.S. Air Force base in Phan Rang. She met Roy, formerly in the Navy, and the two returned to Olympia where they would eventually buy Ben Moore’s Restaurant in 1973 and the 5,400-square-foot building in 1980.
In those days, the restaurant was open 24 hours and Smith sometimes worked two shifts, she said. It was a popular destination for seamen, she said, as well as lawyers and as a meeting place for unions. It had a pool hall that later was removed in favor of a dance floor, except that Smith recalled customers would come and dance but wouldn’t spend money on food and drinks.
That was one of a series of ideas, including gambling, that didn’t always work, Smith said.
“It worked for a while, but it would never last,” she said.
Meanwhile, Michael Murphy, the eventual operator of Ben Moore’s, began working at the restaurant. He rose to chef and then the business was leased to him after her husband died in 1984. Murphy had the option to buy the business over time as part of the lease agreement, but never fully purchased it, she said.
Murphy encountered financial problems of his own, filing for bankruptcy protection four times, including most recently in 2012.
Smith said Murphy became ill and had to close Ben Moore’s on July 30.
In a post on The Olympian Facebook page, Keith Lampard of Olympia said Murphy had been ill for a long time yet continued to run a landmark restaurant.
“I have known and respected Michael (Murphy) since school days,” he wrote. “Hopefully he gets back on his feet soon.”
In addition to being the Ben Moore’s building owner, Smith also operates the restaurant Soba at the Olympia Farmers Market.
A menu cover, found Wednesday at Ben Moore’s, explains part of the restaurant’s history this way:
“Joseph Wohleb designed the original building in 1906. In 1948, Ben Moore connected the existing bar to what was then a billiard hall, and a Chinese restaurant. In 1968, Bettina Moore, Ben Moore’s wife, remodeled and made the barber shop into what is today the front cafe area.”
Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403